On Good Fiction (and learning from other first-timers)

While watching a program about lions on the Smithsonian Channel, I happened upon an article in a the Daily News paper lying on my coffee table. The article was about a Queens novelist’s first-time novel.It grabbed my attention immediately. As an aspiring novelist myself, these things are of great concern to me, and doubly so because the novelist hailed from the same borough as myself.

The book in question is Dogfight, a Love Story, and the author in question is Matt Burgess. According to his own website, Burgess is apparently a “28-year-old graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, [who] grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens.”

His book earned glowing praise from the New York Times, applauding his dialogue. The Economist extolled his visual style. Because Dogfight is supposedly glowing example of said skills, I come to question my own novel.

You see, one of my own strengths as a writer is my ability to create strong dynamic characters. This was noted to me by my brother’s English teacher many years ago, when I read the feedback on the one-act play I had written for my brother’s homework assignment. My work received a grade of A and elicited delighted comments. I’m sure my brother felt very proud to have received such a grade, and that he felt very good that the teacher was fawning over my talent. Aside from character development, dialogue is also something I seem to have a knack for. To me, it isn’t terribly hard: it’s simply a matter of keeping your ears open. But even so, it is a valuable asset for a writer to hold nonetheless.These are the advantages and skills I have that set me apart from the average writer. And so, when The New York Times exalts a novel for qualities that I myself am supposed to have a knack for, it behooves me to study the novel to see how I match up with the competition.And, upon checking out the competition, I become frantically insecure about myself. I think to myself, how is this humble writer, who hails from the same region as Burgess, supposed to compare with someone who studied at a privileged and prestigious college like Dartmouth? How is this underprivileged and undereducated writer – who didn’t even graduate from high school – going to measure up to someone like Burgess?

Honestly, one of my greatest drives to succeed is to show the world that overpriced educations mean nothing, and that raw talent and hard work, combined with a little bit of luck, can result in success. I want to show the world that a neglected young fellow from the not-so-rough streets of Queens can produce a significant literary work out of nothing but good old-fashioned discipline, self-study, and smarts.

My old professor said that I was a diamond in the rough. And that sentiment is just what belies one of my deepest fears. I fear that I will remain nothing but a diamond in the rough. I have enough confidence and perhaps arrogance not to worry that my novel will be a piece of garbage. But I fear that nobody will recognize my talent, that I will remain obscure and undiscovered, perhaps only stumbled upon after my death and treasured and studied only after it’s too late for me to care.

With what little formal education I have had in this art that I so wholeheartedly pursue, it is often frightening to have what feels to be an immense lack of knowledge, guided only by my instincts and my fortunate intelligence a nd insight. I see how J.D. Salinger took a class at Columbia University to work with Whit Burnett in order to hone his skills, and it worries me that I have no mentor to help sharpen the bluntness of my raw talent into a sharp precision of a highly skilled craftsman.

Because I aspire to literary greatness, perhaps I am a little grandiose in my ambitions. Apparently, the age of 28 is still considered ‘young’ in the literary world. In an interview with Burgess, he was asked, “How does it feel to be a published author at the young age of 28?” He replies that he feels extremely fortunate. Soon enough, I will hit my mid-twenties. Yet I feel as though I should’ve already written a novel and made a massive splash in the literary scene: Truman Capote published Other Voices, Other Rooms when he was 24.

The interview with Burgess does provide a measure of comfort though. He describes the process of writing, and the hurdles he had to overcome in his writing. This is important to me because it not only provides me with a sort of roadmap, but also because it serves to confirm my instincts about the craft of writing. Though it may not be evident from these ramblings here, built into my very process of crafting fiction is an extreme discipline: I am constantly asking myself, what is this sentence doing here? Is this action necessary? Why am I describing this? Who is talking to who here? Why are they saying these things? Am I making the absolute most out of every single sentence?

To me, good literary fiction must serve a purpose. It must pose the careful reader questions about the human condition. It must provide a hint of an answer, but never actually outright answer the question. Good literary fiction must not be self-indulgent or hagiographical. Good literary fiction must engage a reader, and give them, at every paragraph, a reason to continue reading.

It is not enough to merely be descriptive or poetic. Such set pieces are too easy: anybody can be “descriptive as hell,” as Holden Caulfield’s roommate Stradlater wanted for his English assignment. It is not enough to merely have vibrant characters. Why are the characters included in the novel? If it is for nothing more than entertainment, then it does not serve a higher purpose in the fiction.

I am extremely critical of fiction I read, and I am not any less so when it comes to my own fiction. I tear my own pages apart, stripping the story down to its base so that it is not filled with extraneous purple prose, so that my novel will not sound like some sort of love letter to the protagonist. I apply an intense amount of pressure on myself to have an economy for words, a holdover from my beginnings as an aspiring screenwriter.

It is because of my extreme criticism that I become my own greatest enemy. I create such an immense fear of failure. If I am to put so much effort and discipline in writing my novel, and it ends up a flop, then I will have wasted so much hard work and energy, and I will have committed the greatest crime an artist can ever commit: to deceive oneself in one’s own cleverness and talent.

But, as I have said before, it does not serve me to fret over these issues. My energy is better spent on my novel. All the same, such fears can serve as a powerful motivator to strive for greatness. After all, if one aims high enough, hitting low is still pretty high.

  • Camille Alsop

    I enjoyed reading this.
    I would argue there are a number of ways that a successful writer can be defined – here are two:
    – one who just writes contentedly, as you seem to do, in a centred knowledge that what you write is good enough for you (which does not preclude the duty of further re-drafting and refinement of original works)
    – one who is widely acclaimed by others, in such a way that his writing is given an elevated status (but this brings us into the realm of beauty being in the eye of the beholder)

    I think if you are content with who you are and what you are doing that is the greatest place to be. Gaining the acclaim of  others is still a worthwhile pursuit, but what grounds you and accords you literary integrity is the first.